Up until just a few years ago, you knew what you were getting into when you walked into a so-called "environmental film." Some dewy-eyed shots of trees and birds. Maybe a Joan Baez song on the soundtrack. And, above all, you'd be getting a stern lecture on how mankind is squandering its earthly resources and must mend the error of its ways.

But now, it seems, an environmental film can be anything. It can be a tense thriller, like the anti-dolphin hunting documentary "The Cove." It can be a sci-fi film, like the mind-bending "Sleep Dealer." It could even be a comedy, like the anti-corporate pranking of "The Yes Men Fix the World."

The second Tales From Planet Earth film festival, running Friday through Sunday, Nov. 6-8, includes those three films and 43 others, ranging across all genres and coming from all over the world. The films screen at several venues, including the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Wisconsin Union Theater and UW Cinematheque, and all are free.

This year's theme is "Justice," and the films encompass a wide range of topics, including not just familiar environmental issues like global warming and nature, but illegal immigration and urban planning.

"It doesn't have to be apocalyptic and down," said Gregg Mitman, curator of the festival and interim director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is putting on the festival. "There's many, many ways to think about telling stories about the environment. I do think it had gotten stuck in a certain kind of format and genre, and people were rightfully like, 'God, this is boring.' I feel a lot of creative work is happening now."

What caused the current gush of environmental films that were actually entertaining as well as informative, Mitman said, was "An Inconvenient Truth." The Oscar-winning 2006 documentary made a powerful case about the existence of global warming, but it also had a dramatic arc as it followed the career of its star, Al Gore.

"Why that film was successful is that we learned more about Gore and his own personal story than we did when he was running for president," Mitman said. "It's that ability to capture the intimate personal side of these big issues, whether it's global warming or illegal immigration or species extinction - how they affect us individually. That's what draws us in."

There seems to be an audience eager to see such movies. "An Inconvenient Truth" was a blockbuster by arthouse standards, and the box office success of other environmentally themed films like "March of the Penguins" and "Grizzly Man" paved the way for many more to come.

The first Tales from Planet Earth festival two years ago also exceeded all expectations. It was conceived as a smaller, one-time event; for the opening-night screening of the global warming documentary "Everything's Cool," organizers expected about 500 people to show up at the Orpheum Theatre.

Instead, the 1,700-seat theater was nearly full, and a total of 3,500 people turned out for the festival. Perhaps even more telling than the numbers was how enthusiastic people seemed to be.

"I remember in 2007 a woman coming up to me in the parking lot," Mitman recalled. "She said, 'I can't tell you how grateful I am. I've got three kids. I could never have come to this festival if it hadn't been free. I've been so inspired that I'm going to go back to graduate school.' So that kind of message is very touching."

It's that kind of zeal that environmental films want to tap into: The hope is that as the closing credits roll, an audience member won't just be moved, but moved to do something after leaving the theater. New documentaries like "Food, Inc.," "The Cove" and "Under Our Skin" don't just present an issue; they outline things that an audience member can do to help bring about change.

That kind of targeted messaging makes sense, since filmmakers are often partnering directly with local organizations when their movies screen in town. When "Under Our Skin," a documentary about chronic Lyme disease, played at Sundance Cinemas last month, the filmmakers arranged for local guest speakers to talk about the issue at some of the screenings.

"Filmmakers are thinking a lot more strategically," Mitman said. "How do you seize new media technologies, how do you seize the Web, how to do you connect the film to communities so that it has an actual impact?"

While the 2007 Tales From Planet Earth festival was basically a film festival, Mitman said this year's version is conceived as a "community and film festival" chock full of crossover events with local groups. Students in Mitman and filmmaker Judith Helfand's two graduate-level courses - environmental documentary filmmaking, and community engagement in film - created community tie-in events linked to the festival.

"I'm a big advocate of 'What do you do after the lights goes up?' " said Helfand, whose film "Cooked," about how the 1995 Chicago heat wave affected the city's poor, will be featured at the festival in conjunction with community events by Porchlight (a local organization that assists Madison's homeless). "How do you harness that energy?"

Filmmaker Alex Rivera will host a special screening of his film "Papapapa" in conjunction with Centro Hispano, and local Latino kids will show 60-second films they made about their lives in Madison. And after a Saturday morning screening of the documentary "What's On Your Plate?," audience members will get to meet young community gardeners from Troy Gardens.

"I really hope audiences take advantage of these community events," Mitman said. "They're an opportunity to do more than just watch films."

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IF YOU GO

What: Tales From Planet Earth environmental film festival

When: Friday, Nov. 6, through Sunday, Nov. 8

Where: Memorial Union, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, UW Cinematheque screening room

Admission: Free

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